Monday, January 14, 2008

The Tea House

Technically, I should be getting ready for the Spring semester. School starts in a few days, and there are lessons to plan, books to read, emails to send, and a myriad of other duties to take care of, but I just spent the better part of the day reading Paul Elwork's novel, The Tea House (Casperian Books, 2007). Admittedly, I knew the novel would be a page-turner not only because I've come to expect good things from Casperian, but also because I was fortunate enough to read an excerpt of The Tea House when Philadelphia Stories ran a special online Halloween edition in October. What I didn't realize when I picked up the book, however, was how thoroughly it would haunt me.

Reminiscent of The Prestige and The Illusionist, The Tea House is a coming of age story about a pair of twins named Emily and Michael who claim an uncanny ability to commune with those who have passed on. Yet as word of their alleged talent spreads, the twins begin to realize that the distance that separates childhood from maturity is as great as that which separates the living from the dead -- and that returning from either journey is impossible.

What's most at stake in The Tea House is the relationship between the past and the present. Time and again, Elwork takes great pains to remind us that the adults in Michael and Emily's lives believe in the twins' powers not so much because of the evidence presented to them, but because they want to believe. They want to believe in an afterlife. They want to believe that they will one day be reunited with their loved ones. They want to believe that the dead can forgive the living. But for all of their efforts to contact the dead, the living in The Tea House adamantly refuse to communicate with each other in a meaningful way.

One lesson that the twins learn about adulthood, then, is that it's easier to wallow in the past than to live in the present. We tell stories both to reconnect with the past and to tame it, to make it palatable. We also construct complicated alibis to make sense of life's big mysteries, to comfort ourselves in the face of overwhelming chaos. We want to be told that everything makes sense. Deep down (or not so deep down) we know that it doesn't, and The Tea House serves as a gentle reminder of a time when we all stood on the edge of adulthood, believing on one hand in the stories that brought order to the confusion and wishing on the other hand that those stories were true.

Overall, The Tea House is an enchanting, engaging read, and Paul Elwork is a sublimely sensitive storyteller with an ear for character and setting. If this novel is a sign of things to come, we can certainly expect to be both charmed and captivated by Elwork in the future.

To read an excerpt of the The Tea House, click here: Excerpt from The Tea House.

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